Tempest in a Teapot

I’m talking, of course, about the ongoing battle for equality on the part of singers who are made second class citizens (at best) by the public, journalists, critics, orchestral conductors, composers, bus boys, meter maids, and any number of other societal representatives who insist on differentiating between ‘singers’ and ‘musicians.’ UGH! When will it STOP?!

Ok, now that my satire is clearly established, let’s really think about this. I read an article today which was published on February 4, 2019, by American composer and conductor, Dominick DiOrio, in which he articulately outlines the history and impact of this terminological differentiation. He cites examples in mainstream publications like the New York Times, and makes a summary statement that I agree with almost completely. Almost.

He says, ” To be absolutely certain that no one misses my point: singers and musicians are not mutually exclusive categories. All singers are musicians, but not all musicians are singers (some are players, some are composers, etc.). Language matters. When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate—even if inadvertently—that they are mutually exclusive categories. In other words, singers are not musicians. That’s a problem.”

(You can read the whole article HERE)

Is this really a problem? Really? Are we not faced daily with legitimate problems that impact our singers as individuals, our ensembles as units, and our programs as a whole? Things like funding for music and staff (pianists anyone?), rehearsal time with students and/or adult community or church singers whose busy lives regularly create scheduling conflicts with our rehearsals, and even scheduling rehearsal time in our performance space are regular hurdles that many choral directors have to manage day in and day out. This is to say nothing of conflict within departments or with administrators, frustrated parents, social conflict within an ensemble, and the impact that managing a single choir or a large choral program has on our personal lives. Time away from home, 14-hour days, tired feet, tired voices, rattled minds, empty stomachs and full bladders are perks of the job for most choral directors. 

On top of the professional hurdles and hoops inherent in our profession, do we not work to manage small and large issues that affect our personal lives, our friends and family members, as well as local/regional/national concerns that affect us in real, tangible, meaningful ways? Rising health insurance and higher education costs, retirement uncertainty, political division, and an ongoing list of other daily concerns have a more direct impact on us as individuals, and therefor on our singers, than to worry about how an MFA or a Ph.D orchestral conductor refers to me or my choir. Generally, we’re grateful to have the opportunity to make art with professional musicians without whom those kinds of opportunities would not be possible for my choirs to experience.

That said, it is certainly true that singers are musicians, by definition. It is also true that the vast majority of singers are undertrained when compared to our instrumental counterparts. This is not necessarily a deficiency, it’s simply a byproduct of the fact that it takes very little training for a singer to contribute to a choral ensemble, or to sing a solo at a wedding, whereas even the most amateur violinist in the average community orchestra requires years of formal training in order to be able to contribute in any meaningful way to an ensemble. This is not intended to diminish solo singers or choristers. After all, I make my living as a singer and a choral conductor, and have chosen this discipline for myriad reasons. That said, I think it’s OK to be honest about the culture, and to recognize that when a community choir joins a professional orchestra for a performance of a masterwork like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, (which DiOrio cites as an example in his article), that the paid professionals, with 20+ years of professional training, who have risen to the top of their professions through rigorous audition processes would be more skilled than the volunteer or paying singer who participates in even the most high-caliber community chorus while spending their professional lives in vocations outside of music (which is true of the vast majority of community choir singers in my nearly 20 years’ experience.) Shouldn’t we expect this to be the case? If so, are we OK with that imbalance? I think we are, by the nature of the fact that we haven’t done anything to demand that choristers meet the same standards of education and training that our orchestral counterparts are required to attain. Most professional choirs in the United States are smaller than would be required to perform masterworks, and so professional orchestras rely on high school, collegiate, and community choirs to stage performances of those works. They do so for artistic reasons, and for business reasons. More people on stage generally equates to more tickets sold, and potential new season ticket buyers. It’s also true that choral music, because of its use of text, has the opportunity to be more impactful to an audience. But I digress.

It may well be that the professional musical community needs to assess whether or not it remains necessary, or appropriate, or even polite to differentiate between ‘singers’ and ‘musicians,’ and I completely understand those who might feel slighted by the distinction; particularly for those singers who are degreed or otherwise educated/qualified beyond simply participating in ensembles for a number of years. But to me, when faced with everything else we battle in this profession each day as musicians/conductors/singers, and simply as people, this issue is a tempest in a teapot, making a mountain out of a molehill, much ado about nothing, or any other aphorism, maxim, or platitude we might wish to employ. 

Let’s point our energy toward greater things, shall we?